Lately you've been collecting origami figures that you find scattered about the house. These are the product of your 7-year-old Cole's regular disappearances into your home office. Independently he finds pieces of scrap paper that are destined for the garbage, repurposes them and moves on. On the surface this should be unremarkable, but the deeper this world dives into the digital rabbit hole where kids too often stare 100 yards into screens, you're happy to see him using his imagination. Recently when praising his artistic talent and creativity, you asked where he comes up with these ideas. He grinned and casually responded that when he needs a friend he just makes one. You returned the smile and kissed his warm temple.
In 2nd grade, he's in his 3rd year of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) aimed to strengthen his focus and catch him up with the appropriate reading and writing benchmarks. You're not familiar with the origin of the IEP terminology, but each time you say it feel like you're skirting the gist with fluffy euphemism, not looking it in the eye. Your son has a learning disability; he's a special ed kid. Last week in a meeting with his teachers, the most recent of many, you gleaned that he doesn't appear to be very interested in creating friendships at school and hasn't committed to memory the names of his classmates, despite his sunny and warm personality. At recess, they say, he generally rolls solo, often drifting to the fringe of the playground to climb trees, appearing to be engaged in conversation with himself. Somehow this behavior does not trouble you remotely, and though intellectually you know their intentions are good, you bristle at their concern.
You've always known Cole to be a halftime adjustment guy -- he starts the school year behind, over winter break figures things out then owns the 2nd semester -- so while you take it seriously you're not hung up on the academic Xs and Os. Your paramount concern is preserving his independent and creative spirit. He's your kid, so bias certainly enters the equation, but you're convinced that this daydreamer might be thinking and feeling on a higher plane while pleasantly posturing his way through school. He can't read a chapter book for shit but he can read a room and light it up.
You'll never bury the memory of him as a kindergartener in a testing room with three DC Public Schools specialists, charming them to the point where one had to excuse herself to jailbreak her contained laughter in the hallway. She was lightning quick to apologize when she saw you on this side of the two way mirror and explained that his character and comedy just overwhelmed her. With a hand on your shoulder she said, I don't care what comes of all this, dad. You got the sweetest apple on your hands and that's what matters. This was not breaking news to you but still stung your eyes with tears. There you were wallowing in despondence with the deepest pit in your stomach, sitting in the bowels of some administrative building watching the dissection of your son's mind, and he rocks the whole boat with a tidal wave of smiles and sweetness.
It's true that he freelances and entertains himself. When you bought this country home on acres of land, you envisioned your boys roaming the property and exploring the surrounding woods. Cole wasted no time embracing that concept. It warms your heart to look out the window and see him splashing in the creek, swinging from tree branches or peering from behind a bush while gripping the twine tied to a rabbit trap he made from a moving box. He's in his element here.
In Michael Chabon's memoir, Manhood for Amateurs, there's an essay in which he uses Michael Pollan's exposure of the myth of free range chickens as a metaphor for his own kids. The essence of it is that kids today live within the constructs parents and teachers have created where their basic needs are met and ultimately develop a comfort level with this that hinders and smothers their imaginations. Given the chance to explore, most kids would rather hang within those confines and stick with what they know. This also pleases parents and teachers because it mitigates risk and keeps life organized. Chabon goes on to synthesize this eloquently:
That may be why I spend as much time worrying about the crap in my kids' imaginative diet as I do fretting over their eating habits. Free space, free play, and the sense of independent control over a world that is vague and discoverable at its edges: These act as a kind of filtration system enabling kids not to work the crap out of their minds but to compound it with the alloy of their own imagination, tempering it against the hard edges and rough spots of the physical world. All great crap is open-ended but only if it can be carried by a child right out into the open. Otherwise, kids get trapped within the flats of the vivid and convincing set that we have constructed for them, afraid to go through doors that lead nowhere, staring through a CGI window at a pastel-and-pixel view of a world they fear or have forgotten how to reach.
One day outside forces will conspire to tip him off that he's different, that he's coloring outside the lines. His peers will ostracize and chip away at him for not falling in with the rest of them all these years. They'll laugh at him for being a SPED kid. You know it's coming because you know some kid's can be real assholes. Dark clouds will accumulate and challenge his magical ability to call out their silver linings. Every parent fears the inevitable moment that the world reveals ugliness to their child. You're stuck on how to handle that revelation. In the meantime, you can only encourage him to keep on keeping on. You don't want him to be anyone else, reading comprehension scores be damned. You don't worry about his future success; you worry about his right now. The rest will work itself out if he stays true. Your childhood and adolescence were riddled with so much doubt and private hand wringing over how to fit in, which led to some regretful social climbing and abandonment of your true self. As a parent you are grateful for that hindsight and rely on it to know when and how to run interference with your kids.
Tonight you practice sight words with him. The stack of flash cards on the coffee table grows taller each week. When the dog whimpers at the back door you leave the room to put him outside. You return to find that Cole has fashioned a flash card into a tiny paper airplane. He sails it to your lap. You unfold it to reveal the word he chose: because.
Note: My friend Ian Sohn recently wrote a thoughtful piece called Conscientiousness vs (and?) Creativity that struck a chord with me. I strongly recommend.